2007 Boyd Conference

The Alfred M. Gray Research Center
Marine Corps Base
Quantico, Virginia
July 13, 2007

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29 August 2007


A heartfelt "Thank you!" to our sponsors:

  • The Marine Corps Association, who sponsored us for the Gray Center and provided the coffee and other refreshments (which were pretty damn good!) Friday morning.  Even if you're not a Marine, you may still be eligible for membership, and if not, you can still subscribe to Leatherneck and the Marine Corps Gazette.  Check it out on their site.

  • U. S. Cavalry, who sponsored our after-hours session Friday evening at the Quantico club.  U. S. Cavalry offers a wide variety of items for military and law enforcement personnel as well as for outdoor enthusiasts in general. Also, visit their homeland security information and discussion site, U. S. Cavalry On Point.

Unique Conference Explores Future of Warfare

Col Chet Richards, USAF, Ret.
MAJ Don Vandergriff, USA, Ret.


“People, ideas and hardware, in that order

John Boyd

On July 13, 2007, the Marine Corps Association hosted a unique conference at the Alfred M. Gray Research Center on Marine Corps Base Quantico. The purpose of the 10th Anniversary Memorial Boyd Conference was to stimulate debate on the evolution of warfare by using the conceptual framework created by the late USAF Colonel John R. Boyd, as well as to expose those in attendance to examples of Boyd’s theories in use today. As most Marines know, Boyd was a major influence on the Marine Corps’s adopting maneuver warfare as their doctrine. When Boyd died on March 9, 1997, then-Commandant Gen Charles C. Krulak wrote that

From John Boyd we learned about competitive decision making on the battlefield-compressing time, using time as an ally. … That ancient book of wisdom-Proverbs-sums up John's contribution to his nation: ‘A wise man is strong and a man of knowledge adds to his strength; for by wise guidance you will wage your war, and there is victory in a multitude of counselors.’ I, and his Corps of Marines, will miss our counselor terribly.

Several retired senior officers who had worked with Boyd and used his concepts attended the conference. They added a real-world flavor to the strategy sessions as well as being kind enough to attend and participate in the breakout sessions in the afternoon. Three of these participated in a panel discussion that closed the conference: former Commandant Gen Alfred M. Gray, for whom the Gray Center is named, former Central Command commander Gen Anthony C. Zinni, who employed Boyd’s strategy both in his AOR and in his business and consulting, and former commander of the USMC Combat Development Command, Lt Gen Paul K. Van Riper, who obtained Boyd’s library and papers for Marine Corps University.

Because of the non-attribution policy in effect at the conference, only those participants who have agreed to have their presentations posted on the conference web site, hosted at, will be cited by name in this article.

Boyd’s Concept of Strategy

As several of the participants noted, the essence of Boyd’s strategy is to create chaos and exploit it faster than the other side can sort it out. With this thought in mind, the conference started strongly with the first presentation by Col Frans Osinga, Ph.D., Royal Netherlands Air Force, whose examination of the origins and implications of Boyd’s theory, Science, Strategy, and War, was recently published in the U.K. Col Osinga used several of Boyd’s original charts to show that this type of strategy will have physical, mental, and moral effects on opponents, degrading their abilities to function as harmonious teams. Col Osinga also demonstrated how, like Clausewitz, Boyd drew on the state-of-the-art of his day both in military theory and from the scientific zeitgeist. In Clausewitz’s time, this meant concepts from Newtonian physics, like friction and centers of gravity.

Boyd was able to incorporate ideas from an enormous body of science unavailable to Clausewitz, particularly the second law of thermodynamics, relativity, quantum mechanics, the “new sciences” of chaos and complexity, and advances in the biological and social sciences such as the theory of evolution by natural selection, experimental psychology, genetics, neurophysiology, and the epistemology of science. The result is a truly new and original synthesis that is based as much on destroying the other side’s ability to function as a coherent system as on improving our own capacity to work effectively under conditions of stress and uncertainty. In his 40 minute presentation, Col Osinga did an excellent job of summarizing Boyd’s years of intense work, which was picked up in the next briefing by Col Chet Richards, USAF, Ret., author of the recent book Certain to Win.

Col Richards continued to evolve Col Osinga’s theme by showing how the OODA “loop” isn’t really a “loop” at all. Boyd, in fact, never drew it that way. Instead, the “loop” is better considered as a way of thinking about conflict based upon the concept of keeping our orientations better matched to reality than our opponents’. Boyd demonstrated, by combining examples both from military history and modern science, that the side that can do this will not only respond to changes more quickly, but can also shape the situation to its liking, and then exploit it before the opponent can react. Col Richards pointed out that in addition to keeping orientation tightly matched to reality, another key is, through training and experience, to assemble an arsenal of potentially effective actions that will flow intuitively, smoothly, and quickly from orientation. The end result is, as Boyd called it, to “operate inside an opponent’s OODA ‘loop’” and thus produce rapid, jarring changes that disorient and demoralize the opposition.

The Changing Nature of War

Several participants questioned whether the nature of war is actually changing or whether it is just that the means of warfare are adapting to the 21st century. Regardless, all agreed that our opponents are much better at operating inside our OODA loops today than we are of operating inside theirs. The results, as Boyd might have predicted, are the chaotic situations that we now see in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The speakers and panelists generally agreed that the fundamental distinction in 21st century warfare is not “regular vs. irregular,” because all warfare should be irregular, but between conflict involving only the armed forces of various states, “conventional” war, and conflict between state militaries and non-state armed groups. Whether this latter is called “fourth generation warfare” or “transnational insurgency” is largely a matter of semantics (all agreed that “terrorism” is a technique and so should not be used as a label for this form of warfare). Even among fourth generation theorists, however, there is a split apparent between those who see it as normal evolution of insurgency and those who place the focus on the decline of states as objects of primary loyalty in parts of the world. Yet, everyone also agreed that stating that 4GW is just another form of insurgency is a major misinterpretation of the theory.

The conference illustrated two distinct approaches to dealing with non-state threats of either sort. Those who see 4GW as evolved insurgency place the emphasis on developing our abilities to deal with the corresponding evolution in insurgency. This thread is represented by the wealth of new counterinsurgency manuals, most of which also incorporate advice for dealing with transnational insurgencies. This approach places strong emphasis on using all “elements of national power,” particularly the non-military functions, to deal with conflicts that are as much social, economic, and political as they are military. The Balkans was offered as a successful, if prototypical, example of this approach.

The other strategy identified by participants involves trying to restore legitimate states and governments to parts of the world where the lack of such governments is fostering or at least harboring violent transnational elements. Unlike those who favor evolved counterinsurgency, proponents of this approach made the case that in many parts of the world, particularly those with cultures radically different than ours, our involvement must be carefully limited. Mr William S. Lind noted that in Muslim countries, we seem to have the “reverse Midas touch”: Everything we touch turns to lead. That is, any government that works with us loses rather than gains legitimacy because they will be seen as collaborators. The speakers and panelists who favored this approach generally recommended containing conflicts until the various local factions resolve the issues on their own terms.

Several discussions at the conference raised the possibility that there is really not an inherent conflict in the two approaches, but each may offer a pattern for a solution that is appropriate to the circumstances – the Balkans as contrasted to the Middle East, for example. What is important is Boyd’s imperative to keep our orientations well matched to the real world at all times and not become locked into ideologies from the left or the right that lead us into inappropriate responses.

People & Ideas

Several of the senior officers made the point, which was generally agreed, that the military culture that we need for 21st century conflict is what Boyd called his “organizational climate for operational success,” sometimes referred to as the “principles of the blitzkrieg” (a term Boyd did not like). This is the same culture that is embodied in the Marine Corps’s doctrinal pubs MCDP 1, Warfighting, and MCDP 6, Command and Control. The essence of this approach is to ensure that we lead through Auftragstaktik, a German word that implies that once everyone understands the commanders’ intent (two levels up), then people are free to and indeed duty-bound to use their creativity and initiative to accomplish their missions within the intent. A senior Marine commander once summarized this command philosophy as: It’s not “centralized decision and decentralized execution.” It’s “centralized vision and decentralized decision making.”

It is the duty of every military organization to create leaders and units that can operate under this concept. As one speaker noted, the other side has to operate this way – centralized control isn’t an option for them. Then how do we move from Boyd’s theory to practice? The next briefing and follow on discussion would highlight this move from theory to practice.

MAJ Don Vandergriff, USA, Ret., presented a new method for instilling a culture capable of Auftragstaktik, the Army’s “adaptive leaders course (ALC).” The Army is currently experimenting with the ALC in some of its precommissioning and junior officer training courses, and MAJ Vandergriff has described its essence in his new book, Raising the Bar. One of the elements in this approach to developing adaptive leaders is the innovative use of tactical decision games (TDGs), a technique popularized by Lt Col John Schmitt, USMC, Ret. The ALC combines TDGs with other approaches through experiential learning, scenario-based education, 360 degree evaluations, and most importantly, outstanding teachers.

The essence of the ALC, as MAJ Vandergriff demonstrated to his breakout session, is not to arrive at the school solution, or even to teach the students to go down a prescribed checklist of steps. Instead, a good scenario for example, that uses a TDG to deliver it, gives students a tactical problem and then puts them under stress – often a time constraint but there are other means limited only by the instructor’s imagination. The students must present not only their solutions but explain why they did what they did. The instructor and the other students will critique, pro and con, the solution as well as the explanation and the technique for solving the problem Did they, for example, use an effective balance of written and verbal instructions? Why did they micromanage their NCOs?

The impact of the training can be magnified by combining TDGs with the study of military history (the best TDGs are based on historical examples) and intensive field work that includes free play exercises. Vandergriff continued to emphasize in his break out session and his workshop held the next day that to be most effective, these teaching approaches must take place under the cultural umbrella of what is called a “learning organization.” In contrast, today’s approach to developing leaders is still focused on top down memorization of process.

Finally, two instructors from the Royal Norwegian Naval Academy (RNoNA) in Bergen outlined how the Academy also effectively translates Boyd’s theory to reality. They use a mixture of classroom instruction, land-based exercises, and a 10-week long cruise aboard their training bark to build groups capable of operating under Auftragstaktik, which is the official doctrine of the Royal Norwegian Navy. As one instructor explained, Auftragstaktik is essential because virtually all their activity nowadays takes place in the Third World in 4GW conditions.

On top of this, as Vandergriff also stressed, students are continually observed, evaluated and forced to analyze how they came about making decisions under stress (the Norwegian officers readily admitted that they use a lot of Vandergriff’s approaches). Uniquely, the RNoNA has developed and statistically validated ways to quantify the “maturity” of groups, which defines their readiness to operate in 4GW-type environments. The Academy can then apply the appropriate “interventions” to help those groups that are lagging in their development.

Conclusions: The Future of Armed Conflict

As one of the senior USMC officers put it, the secret to applying Boyd is to absorb his philosophy and not try to reduce him to another process. Although the exact nature of future conflict is impossible to predict, and semantic hair-splitting is unlikely to prove productive, the concept of creating and exploiting chaos by operating inside an opponent’s OODA loops is alive and well. Unfortunately, we have a lot of work to do to catch up with and then surpass our transnational opponents, by whatever label you choose to identify them.

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